Sunday, December 1, 2013

"Great Art From Bad People" by Nikita Mungarwadi

Patrick Fifelski (DP) & Nikita Mungarwadi (Dir) on location
Guest Essay, from Nikita Mungarwadi, writer and director whom I've had the pleasure of tutoring and working with over the past six years. Picture is of her on the set of her short film Bad Luck Bella that will premiere in Ann Arbor Dec 22, 2014.


What is it about the arts that can manipulate human emotions, sending the witness into a sea of startling tears or a spiral of interminable laughter? What is it about art that inspires us, guides us, and acculturates us? Most hold true to the notion that the purpose of art is to better us and some experts claim art can “raise our moral levels”[1]. We respect the irony of art, the illusion meant to distract our attention from the real world, yet offers universal principles that can be applied to reality. We fasten ourselves so deep into art’s mirage we convince ourselves that the artists must embody and exude some kind of pure goodness. And yet contradictions are ever present. In an interview for the New York Times, Kanye West pronounced, “Great art comes from great artists.” But if we consider that Kanye West is the epitome of narcissism and controversy, it begs the question: Can great art come from bad people?

There’s no doubt that West’s brimming ego depletes his character. At the 2004 American Music Awards, West ranted to the press after country music singer Gretchen Wilson won the Best New Artist Award over him. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, West even dubbed himself a “creative genius.” In addition to his ego, Kanye West consistently finds himself in the center of controversy, from blatantly accusing President George W. Bush on public television of being a racist, to sporting a Confederate flag on his sleeve, to humiliating Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards.  It was reasonable for President Barack Obama to declare Kanye West a “jackass.” But when we consider all the musician’s flaws, we cannot stray from the fact that West’s music manifests considerable talent worthy of merit. With 21 Grammy awards and five platinum solo studio albums, West is immersed in accomplishment, even if his character is far from it.

West has certainly not been the only artist to contradict his art with his character. If we take a look at the 19th century German composer, Richard Wagner, we find his opera compositions to be notably rich in their textures, harmonies, and orchestration. His concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”)[2] revolutionized opera and continued to influence many art forms throughout the 20th century. Apart from distinguishing himself as a powerful composer, Wagner didn’t shy from publicly expressing his obsessive anti-Semitic views. Hitler deeply admired Wagner’s work and exercised his music in Nazi propaganda – Wagner’s music eventually becoming a symbol of fascism.  

The obvious answer is, yes, bad people, or people we consider to have socially reprehensible qualities, are undoubtedly capable of creating critically acclaimed art. But can we separate the man from the music, the art from the artist, and still appreciate the art by itself? Daniel Bareboim, a Jewish conductor who admires Wagner’s music, argues that while Wagner was a raging anti-Semite, he did not compose a single note that was anti-Semitic.[3] It can be argued that the artist and the art are two separate entities, and should be evaluated individually. The artist can be condemned from an ethical viewpoint while the art can only be judged from an aesthetic angle. Sure, Orson Scott Card does not reveal his homophobia in Enders Game[4], and Dickens continued to write about healing families long after discarding his wife[5], but some art cannot truly be fully appreciated without examining the life of the creator. A notable example is Picasso, who fueled his creative output from his countless romantic relationships of which two killed themselves and another two went mad.[6]

The inquisition between great art and ethics becomes even puzzling when we consider that great art can simultaneously glorify moral injustice. D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of A Nation, is known to have revolutionized the commercial film industry with its innovative film techniques, while at the same time presenting the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force.

Art’s purpose goes beyond mere entertainment or bettering the spectator. Art represents the human condition with all its complexities and contradictions. We make art to be human, we witness art to feel human, and we study art to understand humanity. Humans are complex characters, and great art is an extension of that complexity. Art can be analyzed exclusively from the artist, but cannot always be fully appreciated without acknowledging the artist. At the same time, great art does not always constitute morally apt ideals. Art is complex; Humans are complex. Art is ironic; Humans are ironic. Like both good and bad humans, both good and bad art is irreducibly complex, intricate, and embodies the contradictory creations of ingenuity.

[1] Williams, Stan. The Moral Premise. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006. 19. Print.
[2] Barenboim, Daniel. "Wagner and The Jews." The New York Review of Books 60.11 (2013): 1+. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
[3] Barenboim, Daniel. "Wagner and The Jews." The New York Review of Books 60.11 (2013): 1+. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
[4] Lorge, Lauren. "The conundrum of good art created by bad people." The Collegian . Web. 30 Nov. 2013.
[5] Schulman, Sam. "Good Writers. Bad Men. Does It Matter?" In Character, A Journal of Everyday Virtues (2010). Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
[6] McGrath, Charles. "Good Art, Bad People." The New York Times June 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

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